I started thinking more in depth about how different people learn when I was caught screwing around at a faculty meeting. I was sitting with a few of my friends, and we were writing notes back and forth, and trying to make each other laugh (apparently, the topic du jour wasn’t that engaging). It was that “church laugh,” – you know the one?- where you cannot make a noise, and it’s hopeless. My friend Sheila wrote something particularly and extremely hilarious. I couldn’t contain my laughter and made a sort of spitting noise. My cell phone, programmed to play “The Muppet Show” theme song, rang. My friends’ shoulders shook as they tried unsuccessfully to divert their eyes. I panicked, reached over to turn it off, and in doing so, accidentally experienced an unpleasant body function, which sent me and my friends into convulsions of tears. In gasping, I happened to look up, and I caught the eye of my principal, who didn’t look pleased – and felt myself flush with embarrassment. I was suddenly in Jr. High again – shamed, chastened and silenced; I vowed not to screw around in the less-than-scintillating faculty meetings from that point on. So, from that point on, I brought knitting to those meetings. Other people had been doing it for a while, but I had never gotten my act together to bring in my stuff. My behavior changed because I had something to occupy me – to turn my attentions to good instead of evil. Once I started to knit in those meetings, I stopped screwing around. I paid better attention. I made sure I always had a project on hand, in my bag, for me to do whenever.
I taught 9th graders for 8 years. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to a lot of you, but I will tell you that I learned a lot about that age group. They are crazy, high energy, bounce-off-the-walls-pull-off-of-the-ceiling kind of folks, especially the boys.
I had to adjust my standards for focus and for discipline. Notice that I didn’t say “lower” my standards, I simply had to adjust them. I had to recognize what they needed, and what they needed was some understanding. So, recalling my experience in that fateful faculty meeting, if we were watching a movie, or having a lecture or other passive learning activity, I used to let kids knit in my classes. I always told my faculty meeting story to my students, and explained that teachers get sleepy and sometimes bored as well. They had to learn to recognize when that was happening to them, and to do something about it so they could be more engaged in their own learning. It was an unconscious side effect that they were able to self-evaluate their level of engagement; I believe it came from me being honest and open with them about my own inabilities to pay attention sometimes.
It was seriously one of the best things I have ever tried. Anyone who was willing to learn needed to see me outside of class, and there were knitting needles and yarn for anyone who would like to work on a project. There were even a couple of kids who just wanted to roll balls of yarn so that they could keep their hands busy.
Did it work? Mostly; there were a few kiddos who just wanted to screw around, but the culture became that it wasn’t cool to do that. It even became a routine for some students – they would come into the room for class, and immediately get their yarn or knitting. Sometimes, students would ask me if I had any yarn for them to roll because they knew it would help them concentrate. My older students, sophomores and juniors, also really got into the knitting deal. Both girls and boys embraced working with the yarn in some way, shape or form. I also had a bin of koosh balls and other small squishy toys to mess around with – all of which were used lovingly and liberally. It also turned out to be helpful for kids who live with ADD, ADHD or ASD. I also expanded my offerings to a few other things – pens and pencils to loan, for instance – which kept the focus on the coursework and not on the lack of preparation on their part.
I had to learn that for me, it was easier to provide things that would allow students to focus on what I had to offer in English class rather than fight the discipline issues of fidgety, squirmy (yes, I am talking about high school kids) and sometimes detached students. It was self-monitored (except on the very rare occasion when I needed to step in), and I really feel like it made the kids more responsible for their own behavior and their own learning. Granted, knitting isn’t the solution to all discipline problems, and it may not even be allowed in some schools. However, it did work for me and for my students. It was one of those paradigm shifts I had to make about how different people learn.
In my case, it turns out, I learn the same way as many of my students. Since I started knitting in meetings, I have never been in trouble.